Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Meditation Mummy

The following comments are by Anuj Singh, the photographer who took the above picture:

This is an exclusive shot of a Tibetan monk called Sangha Tenzin found mummified inside a tomb at Ghuen village in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.

Professor Victor Mair, consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who has researched on the mummy, says it is at least 500 years old. "He died around the time that Colombus discovered America." (I had taken Mair to see the mummy while he was visiting India as part of a team studying Asian mummies.)

Apparently, the monk had given up his life while meditating in the position he was found mummified.

Ghuen villagers have known about the mummy since 1975, when an earthquake struck the region and brought down a part of the tomb. Ghuen falls in a forward area close to the China border. It is a restricted area under the control of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Therefore, few people outside of Ghuen ever found out about the mummy (until few ITBP men took me to see it during my trip to the region in 1997. I went back to photograph it in 2001).

The mummy is remarkably well preserved for its age. Its skin is unbroken. There is hair on the head as well. Mair says it is partly to do with the extreme cold and dry air of the region and partly to do with the meditation rituals that ancient high monks practiced to get rid of a public menace. "Slow starvation in the last few months of his life reduced the body fat and shrunk parts of the body that would have been liable to putrefaction."

The mummy also did not collapse and disintegrate because of a jute restrainer, which runs around the mummy’s neck and passes between the thighs.

There is a greater significance of the restrainer. It points to a rare and esoteric practice. Mair says, "It kept the monk in an upright position and enabled him to focus on his meditation. If he relaxed, the restrainer knot would have tightened around his neck, cutting off oxygen supply and suffocating him… It was essentially to keep him in a good posture."

Very little is available in Buddhist texts in India that describe this practice. Only one manuscript in the library of Tabo monastery has reference to it.

From his understanding of Buddhist rituals and practices, Mair also says this kind of a practice is rare. "It is only known among certain sects in Japan and Tibet. They tended to be highly esoteric and lived in the mountains. The practice itself is part of the Dzogchen tradition within Nyingma (sect)."

Ghuen, incidentally, is about 50 km from the Tabo monastery, which is the oldest surviving Buddhist establishment in the Trans-Himalayas, dating back 1000 years. Ghuen also straddles an ancient trading route over which spices, wool, salt, precious stones and sugar moved between India and Tibet. Monks and high lamas frequented this route.

Local legends say, about 600 years ago when Ghuen was troubled by scorpions, the monk, Sangha Tenzin, squatted down to mediate in the prescribed manner, after asking his disciples to entomb him. It is believed when his soul left the body, a rainbow appeared across the sky and scorpions mysteriously vanished from the village.

Stumble Upon Toolbar